In my forthcoming book The End of Airports I touch briefly on David Foster Wallace's airport scenes, primarily in relation to the themes of seating and weather. But I missed an important airport instance, which a former student (thanks, Weldon) was good enough to direct me to, from The Broom of the System:
A bright day, in very early September, everything dry, the sun an explicit thing, up there, with heat coming right off it, but a flat edge of cool running town the middle of the day. A jet airplane stood at lunchtime on Runway 1 at CHA, pointed west to go east, a red-ink drawing of a laughing baby on its side, guys with earmuffs and orange plastic flags torn at by the wind off the flatness taking iron prisms out from under the airplane's wheels, the air behind the engines hot and melting the pale green fields through it, the engines hissing through the dry wind like torches, fuel-shimmers. The guys slowly waving the orange flags. The sun glinting off the slanted glass of the windshield, behind which there are sunglasses and thumbs-ups. One of the flag-guys is wearing a Walkman, instead of earmuffs, and he twirls with his flag.This passage is exactly the kind of thing I would have lingered on in my first book, The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. It shows a seemingly tangential airport scene used as a setting in a novel, and it also reflects a certain reading of this space: it is atmospheric, satirical, theatrical, imagistic.... Let's just take it a sentence at a time.
The first sentence establishes a mixed feeling, of sun-scorched tarmac and a weird autumn zephyr. In the next sentence the jet airplane protrudes, standing still "at lunchtime"—thus lending the aircraft animacy, its own cravings? (Or simply reminding us of the consumptive aura of modernity, more generally?) The next sentence is long and very busy, classic Wallace: "Runway 1" is an utterly vague denotation, yet at the same time connotatively powerful; CHA a misnomer (given the novel's geography Wallace likely meant Cleveland Hopkins airport but that would be CLE; CHA is Chattanooga; never mind, it's fiction); "pointed west to go east" suggests the necessary loops involved in the circuits of technoculture; the laughing baby livery a satire of hyperbolic cuteness and mandatory happiness; the ramp workers with their tattered flags perform the bare life of airport labor, pulling chocks from landing gear while exposed in the "melting" air; humans, roaring plane, and landscape merge in this sentence into a fiery shimmer, a collapse of nature and culture, a swarming of senses, affects and objects. The slowly waved orange flags operate rather like Noh fans, signaling some strange drama in process. Mediated behind the glinting glass of the the cockpit we glimpse the pilots via synecdoches of "sunglasses and thumbs-up"—these are not pilots, these are pilot-functions, people stripped down to their rote roles within this mundane (and maybe horrifying) machine. And yet one ramp worker's previously noted earmuffs turn out to be headphones, presumably blasting a stream of private entertainment into the guy's ears, while the "hissing" commercial maelstrom unfurls all around. Is this a glimmer of individual resistance, even expression? Or is the Walkman a mere corollary to the heavy ensemble, the encompassing regime? Is the airport worker plugged in, or tuned out—or is he enacting both comportments at once? The 'twirling' of the flag leaves us with a playful uncertainty as to the determinacy and/or frivolity of this entire passage—and perhaps with respect to the whole grid of acts and trajectories at work here on the tarmac, and beyond.
Through this striking set of images, Wallace offers a highly condensed meditation on some of the puzzles of the jet age. And this is airport reading.